But if that is our contact with what is established and certain, then the rest of the Vancouver experience lives in the contrast. I recently conducted an informal Facebook poll on Vancouver that ended up proving this point. Citing Peter Ustinov’s long-ago quip that Toronto was “New York run by the Swiss,” I asked what parallel statement might be made about Vancouver.
Chaos ensued. There was precisely zero agreement. Comparison cities ranged from San Francisco to Singapore, Oslo to Dubai. Narnia was mentioned. As for who was running the show out here, nobody mentioned the Swiss. Clearly that made no sense. Someone suggested Tojo, the legendary chef at Tojo’s sushi restaurant, though that might have been wishful thinking. Someone else floated “the daughter of a corrupt Chinese businesswoman,” an unsubtle reference to the Chinese pop star Wanting Qu who is dating our mayor, and whose mother, Qu Zhang Mingjie, faced the death penalty last year in China after being arrested and charged with embezzlement and bribery. Who else? The proprietors of a medical marijuana shop. The Oompa-Loompas.
Which doesn’t prove much except to say that the locals I know are not above acknowledging a flaky side to their hometown. And it’s really hard to argue that point, given that Gregor Robertson, that same mayor, was said to have been financed by billionaire Americans who moved here and started a New Age retreat. That Vancouver would spawn the cultlike yoga empire Lululemon at roughly the same time seems almost obvious.
Still, for me, West Coast wackiness doesn’t capture it entirely. Sure, Vancouver can be seen as culturally contiguous to other coastal urban zones that celebrate individual expression: the Castro district in San Francisco, Echo Park in Los Angeles, Portlandia, etc. But what really defines it is a relative lack of assumptions. I travel a lot and I love urban life generally. And what strikes me about where I live is that local residents cannot resort to a unifying cliché. Parisians and Romans, Shanghainese and Chicagoans seem always to know the essential civic myths. In Vancouver, ask a random citizen and you’re liable to get anything.
That can be liberating, of course. My father clearly considered that feature more of an opportunity than a weakness. You can see this in the remarkable mid-20th-century Kodachrome color photography of Fred Herzog, whose work hangs at the Equinox Gallery, and without reference to which the city arguably cannot really be understood. In shots of crowded downtown streets, overflowing store windows and a teeming waterfront, Mr. Herzog — who was a young German immigrant at that time — shows a city energetically inventing itself, building itself, consuming itself. We’re taught to view consumerism and advertisements with skepticism today. But Mr. Herzog’s photos of a man leafing through magazines at a newsstand and of the dense forests of commercial neon that used to line Granville Street are not ironic. He’s gazing with newcomer admiration at Terminal City becoming Vancouver, enthusiastically embracing the freedom to be whatever it chooses.
We’ve continued to do that, having come too late in the city-building game to have much in the way of traditions. We have the polar bear swim. We have a steam-powered clock in Gastown that tourists like to photograph. We have a sprinkling of old office buildings and hotels through our downtown core — which is, for purposes of comparison, about the size of Manhattan from Houston Street south to Battery Park — but the fact is we have a few buildings from every architectural era the city has seen. The local novelist and artist Douglas Coupland described Vancouver as the City of Glass, which says a lot about the new city. But at street level the architecture might be better read like the rings of the city’s great trees. Deco, Chateauesque, International Modernism, Brutalism, postmodernism and on it goes, up through the ages.
It reads like no planning, although that’s not quite true either. We have had no Haussmann in Vancouver, no L’Enfant Plan. But there is Vancouverism, a clustering of planning principles that gives rise to tall residential towers, view corridors, lots of parks. The city is friendly to immigrants and our streets reflect that. Only a little over half of us are Caucasian. Visit Gastown and count the languages you hear as you walk up Hastings Street, past the downtown campus of Simon Fraser University to Victory Square — Arabic, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Spanish.